The popularity myth at the heart of Egyptian politics

“Our home telephone used to ring 24 hours a day; it turned completely dead after my father left power,” stated a friend describing the difference in status between authorized and disaccredited Egyptian politicians. Additionally, he declared that his father had fallen into a state of deep depression when he realized that his relationships with numerous citizens had been founded solely on the “government favors” that he used to provide. This story, and many similar ones, clearly raises questions about what is known in Egypt as an admired politician!

Is popularity a quality that politicians are born with or a trait that is fashioned by their affiliates? Perhaps Egyptians’ desire to be ruled by a popular political leader works on seeding this phenomenon among the millions of citizens who claim to adore their leaders. In fact, uncharismatic leaders probably serve their nations better because their fellow citizens assess them based on their competence and their actual achievements, removed from any emotional attachment.

Culturally, Egyptian society is not able to accommodate either a number of strong politicians or a team of qualified political rivals! We are an individualistic society, tending to select a political leader then to surround him with a number of ordinary technocrats lacking any kind of political appeal, whose only role is to highlight our leader’s superiority. This ruling mechanism often concludes in reinforcing the political status of any given leader – at the expense of having a truly competent governing team that could better serve our national progress.

The Egyptian media play an essential role in boosting the image of any given political leader not only by continually highlighting his achievements, but also by working on creating plenty of phony accomplishments to credit our leaders with. The success of the Egyptian media can be measured by their ability to implant an extremely positive image of a given leader in the minds of the majority of citizens, regardless of the reality. Moreover, illiterate citizens are not the only media victims; well-educated citizens fall into the media trap as well.

The media in Egypt also plays another role; zooming in on potential executives who may be nominated to higher positions to check if they are able to comply with our ruling mechanism. The successful ones are those who understand the political boundaries they are required to live with and don’t attempt to cross them in search of personal political credit. The ‘zooming in’ that many politicians are currently enjoying would be turned to a definite ‘zooming out’ should they ever cross the designated lines and work on growing their popularity.

Knowing that popularity matters in Egypt, the State carefully observes anyone who has the potential to be popular, whether in politics, religion or business. It then works on identifying and building up their shortcomings, which can be used to discredit them if needed. Thus, a ready-made file is created that can easily be pulled out should any politician display the desire, or the ambition, to play a role that is greater than the one assigned to him. The so-called scarcity of political leaders in Egypt is not due to the incompetence of society; it is the result of a well-designed scheme that entraps citizens.

Egyptians are similar to all other universal citizens; they place their personal interests above their attachment to a political figure. Consequently, the State tends to argue that the popularity of leaders actually serves citizens’ interests. Newcomers to the political arena have an advantage over politicians in office; their blank political history, along with their unexamined programs, gives them an edge when addressing citizens’ emotions, whereas politicians in power are subject to relatively objective assessment.

Political popularity in Egypt is a myth that serves a number of leaders at the expense of our national progress. If this trait were truly genuine, rulers would willingly run free and fair elections and compete with a large number of different opponents, confident in their success. In Egypt, however, elections are all about how the process is designed to favor certain candidates over others and the State’s efficient mobilization of citizens –both camouflaged with the words ‘popular candidate’.

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